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50-mile trek is fueled by thoughts of a soothing soak, massage

This article first appeared in The Denver Post on July 25, 2021

It was drizzly, the forest floor spongy with moss and pine duff, and water droplets gathered on fallen aspen leaves and spider webs. I noticed these details while hiking southbound on Collegiate East, a spectacular, steep, unforgiving 80-mile chunk of the Colorado Trail, which stretches 485 miles from Denver to Durango.

There were mushrooms too, different colors, sizes, and species popping through the soil’s crust along the trail. Many of them still had dirt and fir needles on their tops, as if caught in the middle of shaking off after their effort.

I too was shaking it off, marching through the Collegiate Peaks Wilderness in central Colorado’s San Isabel National Forest. “Marching” because the trail was difficult, the miles long and my pack too heavy. Ill-fitting boots were crushing my toes with every step. To distract myself from the pain, I concentrated on the details of the fairy-scape around me, admiring the mushrooms and also counting the days, then hours, then miles, till we arrived at Mount Princeton Hot Springs.

Four men wearing backpacks set out for a hike on the Colorado Trail.
 A group of friends sets out to hike a 50-mile segment of the Colorado Trail in early August 2021, including a stop at Mount Princeton Hot Springs. Photo by Brother Jake.

The payoff of a hot soak by the creek (and possibly a deep tissue massage in the spa) had been in my thoughts since my friends and I had departed Twin Lakes. The steaming, foot-soothing mental images added to my forward momentum as I hiked. So it was a glorious moment on Day 4 after 50 hard miles, when I hobbled into Mount Princeton’s beer garden, next to the upper pool where my hiking buddies had been waiting for me for hours. We cheers-ed a few times, then hefted our packs and crossed Chalk Creek to our cabin to hang wet tents, tarps and clothes before finally surrendering to the 100-degree relaxation pool.

For the previous three nights, we’d squatted on wet ground to eat meals of rehydrated food while swatting mosquitoes; but on this night, we dressed in our least-smellies and dined as human beings in the Mary Murphy Steakhouse, named after the gold mine that originally funded this resort in the late 1800s. Before that, for ages, the Ute people camped here in the winter for the hot springs. Then settlers and miners built a hotel and bathhouse and it’s been an undersung tourist destination ever since.

Most visitors drive to Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort, which is west of Nathrop in Chaffee County, 130 miles from Denver; that’s how I first visited with my family. But this week, with these guys, on this trail, there was something special about arriving by boot — something more than merely the hot springs version of “earn your turns.”

The pool and bar and spa, on the Sunday night earlier this month when we passed through, was low-key buzzing with activity. The scene and noise level was a sharp contrast to our quiet meditations and sufferings of the last few days on the trail. But reclaiming that sense of silence in the wilderness, escaping the chatter of people on vacation, was as easy as sliding underwater and, for a moment, floating in the middle of nowhere.

If you go

Learn more about hiking the Colorado Trail (or volunteering to maintain it) at coloradotrail.org. Mount Princeton Hot Springs Resort (mtprinceton.com, 719-395-2447) offers adult pool passes for $30 during the week. There’s an upper family pool with a 400-foot water slide, a stunning infinity pool where water yoga and other classes are held, an adults-only relaxation pool, and, when conditions permit, natural hot pools in Chalk Creek. Lodge rooms start at $160. There also are creekside suites and comfortable cabins.

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